Matt Irwin is aware of the opportunity awaiting him in Buffalo.
The left-shot defenseman did his due diligence after entering unrestricted free agency and recognized that the Sabres defense corps leaned to the right. That’s not to say he is taking it for granted.
“I’m not going in there expecting to step right in,” Irwin said. “I know damn right I’ve got to prove myself to get that opportunity. It’s been like that my whole career.”
The Sabres signed Irwin to a one-year deal worth $700,000 on the opening day of free agency, adding a veteran presence to a defense group that previously included two left shots (Rasmus Dahlin and Jake McCabe) and four right (Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, and Rasmus Ristolainen).
While that split was a small part of the appeal, Irwin said he would be just as willing to play on his offhand- a role he filled often during his time with the Nashville Predators. In fact, if there has been any theme to Irwin’s career, it’s that he is eager to embrace any job that will get him on the ice.
Irwin considered himself an offensive defenseman coming up through juniors and during his college career at the University of Massachusetts. He scored 88 points in 143 games during his two full seasons with Worcester, then the AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks.
Irwin kept that identity through his first two full NHL seasons with San Jose, tallying a combined 38 points in 115 games in 2013-14 and 2014-15. He averaged more than a minute of ice time on the power play in both of those seasons.
After heading to Boston and spending most of 2015-16 with the AHL affiliate in Providence, Irwin carved out a new role upon arriving in Nashville. There, he joined a talented defense corps headlined by players like P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and Roman Josi.
“Those guys are going out almost every other shift. [When] you’re in there, you’re buying them some time to catch some air and you’re doing your job,” Irwin said. “It’s nothing too flashy. You just try to keep things simple and play the minutes that you’re given and embrace that. I really enjoyed that role.”
Irwin appeared in a career-high 74 games during the 2016-17 regular season and then played 22 more during Nashville’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. He amassed a career-high 90:53 of shorthanded ice time.
“I mean, the ultimate goal for me is to be on the ice and play,” Irwin said. “Whichever way that is, I am happy to do so. It doesn’t matter if it’s penalty kill, power play, just strictly 5-on-5. Whatever it is, I just want to be out there and help the team win.